Movie review: Tetris

(courtesy IMP Awards)

History doesn’t always make for good stories.

In-between all the big battles and epic moments, there’s an awful lots of business-as-usual incidents that don’t lend themselves to exciting storytelling, no matter how much extra made-up oomph Hollywood might inject into proceedings.

And then there are stories like the one behind Tetris, which is equal bits thrilling and tenaciously banal but which together creates a film that proves to be far more addictively fun to watch than you otherwise expect.

It helps, of course, that the events of the movie takes place in 1988, in the dying days of the USSR where the old communist injunction against fraternising with the capitalists is breaking down as it appears that the West has won, or is on the verge of winning, the decades-old Cold War.

While the decades since have muddied the ideological purity of that victory, if it was a victory at all – history, much as we might like it to be, is rarely as clean-cut or neatly sliced as pundits like to present it – the truth is that it was a watershed moment and one ripe for stories about the clashing of two disparate belief systems and the divergent cultures they formed.

You might not think that a strategic early video game about falling blocks would be the story to illuminate the great chasm between the two and how the late eighties and early nineties but Tetris proves that the simplest things can grip peoples’ imaginations and propel events out of all proportion to the object itself.

It’s 1988 and a programmer at Soviet software company ELORG – like everything else, the company is government-owned and run, with a drab collective misery permeating its halls – named Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) has devised Tetris in his off hours using an ancient company that can’t handle blocks but can create grouped parentheses.

So captivating does the game prove that it spreads through Soviet businesses everywhere, and eventually to the Eastern Bloc where a businessman named Robert Stein (Toby Jones) spots it on one of his routine tours of software companies there, visits undertaken in the hope that something remarkably different and new might be lurking far from Western expectations and norms.

He is out to make a quick buck naturally and quickly stitches up a deal to buy the rights for the game that he on-sells to media tycoon Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his arrogant son Kevin (Anthony Boyle) who set out to woo the world with this immersively simple game.

One of the places they take the game is the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas where ambitiously honest video game entrepreneur, Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) spots Teris and enthralled by it, grabs the right to the game for Japan where he lives with his Japanese businesswoman wife Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi) and their four kids.

Rogers believes Tetris could be the making of his company Bullet-Proof Software and invests everything into a relationship with Nintendo only to find that the rights for the game may not be as clearly delineated as he was led to believe.

With the rights in disarray, he had, rather unadvisedly, to Moscow to speak to ELORG and Pajitnov, plunging into a world of messy politics, avarice and greed and possible imprisonment, as Tetris becomes a lightning rod of sorts for the tensions of the time where capitalism is slowly nibbling at the soul of communism and eroding once sure ideological positions.

It’s likely at this point that Tetris has an entertaining divergence from reality, something all confirmed by Rogers who admitted in an interview that “It’s a Hollywood script; it’s a movie. It’s not about history, so a lot of [what’s in the movie] never happened.” (Canary Media)

While he and Pajitnov, who became good friends during the tumultuous negotiations in Moscow and who went on to found a company together after the USSR fell, did their best to correct any historical inaccuracies, he had to accede in the end to the fact that storytelling would win out over factual accuracy.

They tried their best to accept our changes when they had to do with authenticity. But when it started getting into [creative flourishes like] the car chase and all that, it was like, ‘OK, now it’s all them.’ We couldn’t change anything. (Canary Media via Wikipedia)

But then stories like this never exist in world of ultimate truthfulness.

There’s always an amped-up fairytale quality to these stories which defy common logic and day-to-day realities and which, let’s be fair, do make movies like Tetris scintillatingly fun to watch.

The thing about this film is that if you strip away the car chases, the KGB skullduggery, the over-the-top political manoeuvring and yes, even the failure to stop a plane taking off at Moscow airport in an era where control was still relatively ironclad, there’s still a fascinating story to be told.

If nothing else, the fact that Rogers defied the odds and geopolitical norms to go to Moscow and bargain with a regime that had no real interest in capitalism other than trying to beat the West at its own game, is excitement enough.

This was at a time when as Nintendo America executives remind Rogers the US and USSR were mortal enemies and you simply didn’t walk into Russia and demand to stitch up a business deal; but then Rogers had a lot on the line and the failure to bring Tetris to the world would mean his ruin so he was motivated.

He was also, and thank god for this that the film’s writers didn’t try to milk any comedy from it, happy to let the drama do the talking (augmented as it might be), with Rogers rendered as a canny businessman with good instincts who keeps being out-manoeuvred only to find a way to manoeuvre right on back.

Who knew that such a simple game could lead to such a big and complicated situation and that it would become emblematic of what happening to the USSR and the world as capitalism seemingly won the war of ideologies?

The fact is that it wasn’t quite that simple, and history isn’t as thrilling as we always like to think it is, but in Tetris, we are served up a seductively dramatic mix of truth and fiction that keeps you glued to your seat, which amplifies the highs and the low of the human condition and the flawed political systems they engender, and which proves that tenacity and dogged determination can change the world, both that of society at large and of two men who found out it is possible to beat the system and change their fortunes with the simplest and most captivating of inventions.

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